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The Wind Done Gone

May 5, 2001

Critic's Notebook: Within Its Genre, a Takeoff on Tara Gropes for a Place

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI

If you sit down and read "The Wind Done Gone," Alice Randall's controversial "Gone With the Wind" takeoff, it's hard to understand how the novel could be considered a "blatant and wholesale theft" of "Gone With the Wind," as lawyers for the trusts that own Margaret Mitchell's copyright have contended. Though clumsy, self-important and sometimes laughably silly, "The Wind Done Gone" ardently contests the romanticized view of the antebellum South set down in "Gone With the Wind" and proposes an Afrocentric version of history in its stead. It is both a commentary on an iconic work of fiction and a repudiation of that novel's worldview.

Pre-publication galleys of Ms. Randall's novel show that "The Wind Done Gone" not only ignores restrictions the Mitchell estate has reportedly placed on authorized sequels (that Scarlett never die, that miscegenation and homosexuality be avoided), but also suggests that Scarlett had a black ancestor, that Tara was really run by savvy slaves who knew how to manipulate their white masters and that Rhett pursued Scarlett only because she looked like her mulatto half-sister, Cynara, who was the true love of his life.

Indeed, it seems entirely possible that these contrarian aspects of "The Wind Done Gone" played a considerable role in the desire of the Mitchell trusts to squash its publication. Although a Federal District Court in Atlanta blocked the novel's publication last month on grounds of copyright infringement, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is to hear an appeal from the book's publishers on May 25.

Certainly, there are precedents aplenty for authors basing works on pre-existing texts: "Ulysses" would not exist without the "Odyssey," "Mourning Becomes Electra" would not exist without the Oresteia, "West Side Story" would not exist without "Romeo and Juliet." And in our postmodern collage-and-sampling-mad era, this sort of artistic recycling has become more prevalent than ever. Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-prize winning novel, "The Hours," (based on Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway"); Amy Heckerling's film "Clueless" (inspired by Jane Austen's "Emma"); Valerie Martin's "Mary Reilly" (spun out from Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde") Sena Jeter Naslund's "Ahab's Wife" (extrapolated from Melville's "Moby-Dick") -- all are recent, well-received works of art that owe a debt to established classics.

Turning a well-known story on its head and creating revisionistic portraits of well- known characters, as "The Wind Done Gone" does with Scarlett and Rhett among others, are also time-tested narrative strategies. Decades ago, during the first big wave of postmodernist experimentation, John Gardner retold the story of "Beowulf" from the monster's point of view in "Grendel," and Donald Barthelme turned the dwarfs from "Snow White" into lascivious pranksters in his fractured version of the fairy tale. More recently, John Updike depicted Hamlet as a sullen, spoiled brat and his adulterous mother as a woman of sensitivity and intelligence ("Gertrude and Claudius"), and Peter Carey looked at the story of "Great Expectations" through the eyes of the convict Magwitch, suggesting that Pip was in fact an undeserving snob ("Jack Maggs").

What makes some of these works more successful than others? In the case of Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea," which takes up the story of the first Mrs. Rochester from "Jane Eyre,") the author's talents meshed so neatly with her material that she was able to create a parallel universe persuasive enough to make readers reconsider an iconic figure. In the case of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," the playwright's inventive and antic wit enabled him to mimic and subvert "Hamlet's" tropes. And in the case of the playful fictions of Barthelme and Robert Coover, a critical literary intelligence turned what would have otherwise been imitative exercises into glittering, post-modern confections.

Perhaps the most difficult form of literary recycling to pull off convincingly is the one with a political subtext: all too often dogma is substituted for drama, ideological chess maneuvering for genuine storytelling. Though Kathy Acker's feminist version of "Don Quixote" -- which turned the knight into a contemporary woman who travels through New York and London accompanied by a talking dog -- was fiercely funny at times, it was also tendentious and heavy- handed.

Mr. Updike's "S" -- a comic variation on Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter," which made the Hester Prynne figure a modern-day narcissist who leaves her family to join an ashram -- clumsily stacked the deck against its heroine and read like an angry screed against emancipated women. And Gregory Maguire's "Wicked," -- which purported to tell the real story of the much maligned Wicked Witch of the West, simply used L. Frank Baum's Oz characters as fodder for the author's own politically correct philosophizing.

"The Wind Done Gone" suffers from similiar problems. Written, in Ms. Randall's words, as "an antidote to a text that has hurt generations of African-Americans," the novel tries hard to provide a mirror world to the one in "Gone With the Wind." Unfortunately, it ends up inadvertently diminishing the horrors and deprivations of slavery, while undermining sympathy for some of the very characters it wants to promote.

In interviews, Ms. Randall has spoken of her anger at the stereotyped portrayals of blacks in "Gone With the Wind," which she says depicts them as being incompetent and shiftless, and in her own novel she implies that the Tara slaves were actually orchestrating events behind the scenes. The slave Garlic (known as "Pork" in "Gone With the Wind"), she writes, "pulled the string, and Planter" -- that is, Scarlett's father -- "danced like a bandy-legged Irish marionette."

We are told that Garlic was the one who first had a vision of Tara, and then manipulated events to bring that vision to fruition, plotting his way into Planter's employ and plotting the ineffectual Planter's winning of the land in a card game. Mammy, on her part, is rumored to have murdered Scarlett's three brothers when they were babies to ensure that there were no male heirs to challenge "Garlic's authority over the house." As for the slave Prissy -- who in the movie of "Gone With the Wind" famously says, "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies" -- she is depicted as deliberately feigning ignorance to mask her desire to kill the Melanie Wilkes character (called "Mealy Mouth" in Ms. Randall's novel).

Most of the white people in "The Wind Done Gone" are portrayed as cowardly, ineffectual or deluded. The Rhett figure (known as "R") emerges not as the dashing figure played by Clark Gable but as a lovelorn, befuddled fellow who is summarily dumped by Cynara for a dashing black politician. Ashley (known as "Dreamy Gentleman") is pictured as a wimpy closeted homosexual who was in love with Priss's brother. And Scarlett (known as "Other") -- whose vigor, vitality and pragmatism are ascribed to her black ancestry -- is described as "Mammy's revenge on a world of white men who would not marry her dark self": she was taught by Mammy "to pick up hearts and trained to dash them down, both with casual ease."

Although "The Wind Done Gone" is supposed to be a bildungsroman that traces its narrator's journey from slavery to freedom, Cynara turns out to be such a generic -- and unsympathetic -- heroine that it's hard for the reader to care very much about her adventures. To begin with, she defines herself almost entirely through her relationship to Scarlett. As a child, she is jealous of the attention that her mother, Mammy, lavished on Scarlett, and as a young woman she is jealous of Rhett's pursuit of Scarlett. "Had I ever really loved him," she wonders, "or had I just wanted what was hers?"

Cynara calls the death of Scarlett and Rhett's daughter "a miracle" because it frees Rhett to leave Scarlett and marry her, but once Scarlett dies (she apparently contracts smallpox and throws herself down a flight of stairs), Cynara begins to lose interest in him. "Sometimes when I feel neither lucky nor worthy, I'm grateful to get the win anyway I get it," she observes. "Sometimes I can taste beating her out and I am sad to be starved of it."

Cynara's decision to leave Rhett after their marriage is meant as a symbol of her liberation -- from slavery, from her past, from dependence on a paternalistic male -- but before she leaves his house, she helps herself to Scarlett's clothes and jewelry to begin her new life. It is a measure of her new self-esteem that she now thinks of herself as being more beautiful than Scarlett.

No doubt Ms. Randall's hothouse language is meant to satirize Margaret Mitchell's populist prose, but it ends up making "The Wind Done Gone" read like a cheap romance novel. Cynara describes herself as being "sweet, hot, strong and black -- like a good cup of coffee" -- and she is fond of making vacuous statements like "I would like to see Buckingham Palace, and the Thames River, and the white cliffs of Dover again."

A messy hodgepodge of styles and ambitions, "The Wind Done Gone" veers wildly between satire and sentimentality, political rhetoric ("all women are niggers," "poverty is a cruel master") and mushy dime- store melodrama. Ms. Randall's efforts at parody (one of the areas protected under the "fair use" doctrine in copyright law) are decidedly unfunny, and her attempts at social commentary (another area protected under copyright law) are often ungainly. Yet as even one of the Mitchell trusts' own lawyers, Martin Garbus, has argued in the past (vis-Ā-vis another case), it is "a dangerous business" for courts to start making judgments on the basis of the quality of a work of art.

One of the ironies of the Mitchell trusts' lawsuit to halt publication of "The Wind Done Gone" is that it has created an enormous amount of interest in the book. Had the novel simply been published as planned, it probably would have created a small stir as an intriguing but poorly executed idea, then, like so many mediocre books, faded quickly away. Now, however, people who care about freedom of expression and First Amendment rights frankly do give a damn.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information

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